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How a 'total accident' led to Garry's Mod's funniest feature and 15 years of twisted success

Garry's Mod art
(Image credit: Facepunch)

There's a fun holiday surprise over on the Garry's Mod website called the 12 Days of Garry's Mod. The page displays some amazing Garry's Mod creations, like "Half-Life: Full Life Consequences"—a charmingly awful story written by a Fanfiction.net author named squirrelking and turned into a hilarious and unforgettable short film by YouTuber Djy1991.

You'll also see Ross Scott's comedy series Civil Protection, moody sci-fi drama Shelf-Life Part 1 and Part 2, the gorgeously atmospheric 40-minute long film Haven, and several other notable machinima highlights, all made with Garry's Mod, the physics sandbox created by Garry Newman and Facepunch Studios way back in 2004.

It must have been difficult narrowing the selection down to just a dozen features, considering Garry's Mod has been around for 15 years now. Along the way from free sandbox mod for Half-Life 2 to standalone game on Steam, it's sold millions of copies, it's been used to make thousands of videos and webcomics, and has hundreds of popular mods and gamemodes created by users, like Prop Hunt, Jailbreak, Trouble in Terrorist Town, and more.

The 15 year anniversary is the perfect time to chat about the strange legacy of Garry's Mod, so I fired over some questions via email both to Garry's Mod creator Garry Newman and Valve's Erik Johnson. Here's what they had to say.

Origin stories

(Image credit: Facepunch)

PC Gamer: How did you come up with the name?

Garry Newman: You know, I think I kind of actually stole the name, it wasn’t my idea to name stuff after myself. At the time there was another mod called JBMod, made by a guy that went by "jb55." So it made sense that my take on that mod would be called Garry’s Mod—because I went by the name "garry". I probably wouldn’t have named it called Garry’s Mod if I knew where it would end up.

Garry's Mod has been in the top 10-20 games on Steam for as long as I can remember. Tens of thousands still play it every day, but how are sales nowadays?

GN: It sells about 1.5m copies a year, and it’s sold just over 15m copies total. Which is kind of pleasing since it’s also 15 years old. Plus you know, money.

Do you recall when Valve first became aware of Garry's Mod? What were your first thoughts about it?

Citizen 17

(Image credit: Facepunch Studios)

What's it like being a citizen under the oppressive thumb of the Combine on a Garry's Mod roleplaying server? We went undercover to find out.

Erik Johnson: The specific point in time is a little tricky to pin down. I do remember there being a pretty significant, and somewhat underground, mod community that was working off of the Half-Life 2 source code leak from 2003. While having the code for Half-Life 2 out in the wild before the game was finished wasn’t a super positive experience for the team finishing the game, it's pretty cool to see what the mod community could get working with that unfinished codebase. It felt like Garry’s Mod grew right out of that community after Half-Life 2 shipped.

Did anyone at Valve have any idea the Source engine could be used the way it is in Garry's Mod? Are there any tools in GMod that surprised you to see?

EJ: A lot of the identity of the gameplay of Half-Life 2 centered around physics. Even in the early days of development, most of the experiments that people were running had the physics engine at its core. So, on one hand, it wasn’t surprising that Garry started in a similar place that we did. That said, it would have been pretty hard to predict the Garry’s Mod of 2019 back in 2004.

We’ve always been impressed by Garry’s ability to iterate on the game and roll feedback from his community into the game so well. It’s a more difficult process than it sounds, because it really comes down to navigating a constant stream of feedback, but being limited in the amount of time to get everything done. Garry has always been about as good as it gets at picking the right direction to take his game.

What's it like to see the beloved characters from Half-Life and other Valve games being used with Garry's Mod for machinima and comics and videos?

EJ: It’s pretty cool. Part of the process for us in shipping any of our games, but especially the single player ones, is letting go of them once they are released, and letting the community take bits and pieces of them in whatever direction they want to. It will be fun to watch what people build with the editor we’re releasing along with Half-Life: Alyx next year.

Pay to play

Paid mods are (still) a great source of ire among (some) players. When did the idea to start selling GMod on Steam come along? Was it Valve's idea or Garry's?

EJ: It was the early days of getting Steam built, and it was pretty clear that Garry’s Mod had a big (and growing) audience. Our philosophy back then was the same as it is today, which is that we wanted a platform that connected the people who created valuable content with the people that consumed it. It was clear that it was a perfect example of a product that would benefit from this, and so we reached out and asked him if he was interested.

Garry being able starting at building a product that he thought people would like, to where he is today, is the kind of story we’re always trying to make happen. Reducing the friction between the creator of interesting content and the consumer of it has a number of really positive side effects. It’s been cool to see it happen over the past 15 years for Garry and his team.

GN: It was about a year before we started selling it. I was emailing [Valve] to ask about something else and they mentioned that they think it’d sell well. I was like, yeah right, what a dumb idea, it’s already free—why would anyone pay for it? 

As time went by and it kept getting more popular, I thought about things I’d like to reprogram, stuff I’d like to improve and innovate on. I couldn’t justify spending a decent amount of time doing this stuff. Then it clicked that if we were going to sell the new version it could justify spending more time on it and justify people buying it rather than sticking with the free version. So then I had to get on my hands and knees and send an email to Valve where I explained that it wasn’t a dumb idea and can we do it please.

(Image credit: Facepunch)

Was the negative reaction [to selling Garry's Mod] worse than you thought it might be, or not as bad?

So I’m thinking, fuck, I've announced it’s going to be on Steam and now I've pissed off Valve.

Garry Newman

GN: I can’t remember much of it—it was actually one of the most embarrassing things that has ever happened to me. We’d been working on it in secret for a few months and the community were getting quite worried. They had got used to weekly updates before that. So we decided to announce that we were going to be on Steam and everything was going to be okay. This wasn’t like announcing that you’re gonna be on Steam nowadays, this was when there were about 3 games on Steam. This was a big deal and blew up everywhere.

Then the next morning I woke up to an email from Valve, saying something like "It’s customary to wait until the agreements are signed before announcing." So I’m thinking, fuck, I’ve announced it’s going to be on Steam and now I’ve pissed off Valve—so it’s not going to be on Steam. It took me a couple of weeks to recover from that. I couldn’t enjoy any of the community happiness, I felt like a right knob head. 

How did you settle on the $10 price? After 15 years (sales aside) why is it still $10?

GN: I don’t think I ever contemplated charging more. It was free and now it’s not, the price had to be low enough to people that they’d just be like... yeah sure why not. It’s important to remember that before Steam pretty much no-one bought games on the PC. Everything was pirated. And while Garry’s Mod was a multiplayer game—which offered some protection from piracy—it could be played single player too. It had to be cheap and easy enough to stop people pirating it.

Apart from having money from sales, how did selling GMod change its development?

GN: I think Garry’s Mod would have died 15 years ago if we didn’t sell it. It gave us a reason to continue development. Besides that Steam obviously allowed us to update the game much easier. Previously when it was free you’d download a zip file from my website with the new version in. This would limit the frequency of the updates.

Back then, because Steam was in its infancy, they didn’t have an automated update system. I had to upload the new builds to an FTP and email Valve to make them live. Because of the time difference this could mean that a patch could go out at 4 am my time, while I was in bed. If there was a bug in it I’d be in a lot of trouble when I woke up. But again because of the time difference I wouldn’t be able to get a patch out until Valve were back at their desks the next day.

Strike a pose

(Image credit: Facepunch)

What do most players do in Garry's Mod these days? Do you know what the most popular mode or mod for it is? When is the last time you played it yourself?

GN: The roleplay gamemodes are still a huge thing, but that in itself can encompass a thousand other sub gamemodes. Between Facepunch, Rust, two kids and trying to watch 10 hours of TV every day—I don’t have much time to play nowadays. I used to feel bad about that, like a great chair maker that doesn’t like to sit on chairs. But I think it’s just that I enjoy making them a whole lot more than playing them.

Being able to pose ragdolls made Garry's mod a great tool for comics, videos, and machinima. How did that function first come about?  

GN: A total accident. I was trying to pose ragdolls, but not by freezing their joints. I was trying to make it so they would move like the atmosphere was really thick, so they’d stay in place. The physics in Source back then weren’t as stable as they are now. You could really easily cause a crash by giving it numbers that it wasn’t expecting. I used the wrong values and it locked one of their bones in place. I made a quick pose—I think it was Kleiner giving birth. I was really excited—I immediately knew the fun everyone was going to have with this.

I had a phone interview [with Valve] and I don’t think it took them long to realise that I didn’t know shit.

Garry Newman

What's the biggest requested feature you get from Garry's Mod players?

GN: The biggest thing, by about a million miles is the "Played with Garry" achievement. It’s one of the hardest achievements to get on Steam—for obvious reasons.

Valve has hired a number of people who mod their games. Am I remembering correctly that you tried to get a job with Valve at one point?

GN: Yeah I applied for a job, I think it was before Garry’s Mod went on sale. Or might have been just after. Around that time anyway. I had a phone interview and I don’t think it took them long to realise that I didn’t know shit. I didn’t get offered a position. In retrospect it’s a good thing. Helk (Rust lead) had an interview with them too, he made it all the way to an in-office interview. They had him writing out code on a whiteboard. I can’t even code without Google—so I wouldn’t stand a chance at that.

Have you hired any people at Facepunch based on mods they've made in Garry's Mod?

GN: No, it wasn’t something we were prepared for, as a company, back then. It’s something we should have been doing. I see the stuff the Tower Unite guys have managed to do after their Gmod Tower gamemodes and kick myself. It’s a great thing for them, to go out and make their own game but in an ideal world we could have made it good for all of us.

Future tense

(Image credit: Facepunch Studios)

Garry's Mod is still being updated, but how often do you personally still work on Garry's Mod?

GN: I haven’t personally worked on it for about three years. Rubat and Willox have done a really good job of taking it off my plate. I found that it got to a place where anything I tried to change I got yelled at by the community for breaking something else. So I felt like it’s better to just maintain it, to keep it ticking over so the modders can do their thing. Or risk breaking 15 years worth of content.

What's the Garry's mod mod that hasn't happened yet, but you really wanted to happen?

GN: There’s actually a ton of things I want to do, but I don’t like to talk about it too much. If you talk about stuff you want to do you don’t end up doing it, because you feel like you already did it. You get all the positive feedback from it. Plus I don’t want to pull a Peter Molyneux and talk about a bunch of stuff that gets people excited, but let them all down when the idea eventually has to collide with reality.

(Image credit: Facepunch)

What's the status of S&box, which sounds like a Garry's Mod for Unreal Engine 4. The last devblog was in 2018.

GN: We did a lot of experimentation with s&box on UE4. It’s actually quite far along but we decided to pause it for now. We’re hoping you’ll hear more about it next year—if not it’s probably dead forever.

Will Garry's Mod still be around in another 15 years? What will it look like then?

GN: In 15 years I’ll be 52. An old man. We’ll have the iPhone 35, Steam’s friend list will be its own operating system and my son will be the age I was when I first made GMod. It’s possible it might be renamed Alex’s Mod and is primarily used to watch exploited/spoilt american kids play with toys in their massive Youtube house. But who knows. We’ll keep updating as long as people keep playing. Maybe we’ll do a sequel.

Chris has a love-hate relationship with survival games and an unhealthy fascination with the inner lives of NPCs. He's also a fan of offbeat simulation games, mods, and ignoring stories in RPGs so he can make up his own.